Government U-turns on children's free summer meals after previously rejecting plea from Marcus Rashford

  • Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Dan Hewitt

The government has bowed to pressure and performed a U-turn after previously rejecting a plea to provide children in England with free meals during the school summer holidays.

Marcus Rashford's campaign for an extension to the free school meal voucher scheme through the summer holidays had been dismissed despite increasing pressure from public figures and politicians.

But now the government says it will set up a summer food fund for those who would usually receive free school meals during term time.

Boris Johnson's spokesperson said the plan to provide around 1.3 million children in England with a six week food voucher will cost £120 million.

During the coronavirus briefing Mr Johnson said he had spoken to Rashford to “congratulate him” on his campaign for free school meals over the summer, adding: “I thank him for what he’s done.”

"I think it is the right thing to do and it will help the kids from the families that really need it," the prime minister said.

  • ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston analyses the latest developments on the government U-turn

Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has also announced the scheme will be extended in north of the border.

The Welsh Government announced in April it would continue funding free school meals for eligible children during the summer holidays in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Downing Street said the "specific measure" for summer holiday vouchers would amount to £15 per week per child.

It seems pressure from Rashford forced a change in government policy despite a Department for Education spokesperson previously saying the voucher scheme “will not run during the summer holidays”.

After the government announced its U-turn, the footballer tweeted "just look at what we can do when we come together".

The prime minister's spokesperson said Mr Johnson "welcomes" the England striker's "contribution".

A voucher scheme had been set up to help disadvantaged families during the coronavirus lockdown as children would not be receiving meals at school, however the plan had been to scrap the support at the start of the school summer holidays.

The plan to stop support was met with fury by politicians from across the spectrum, teaching unions and the former head of Ofsted, who all said children don't stop being hungry when the summer holidays start.

Manchester United striker Rashford waded into the debate, writing a letter to all MPs, urging them to press the government for a U-turn.

The 22-year-old England footballer penned an open letter this week asking the government to reverse its decision to curtail the scheme – for which nearly 1.3 million children are eligible – outside of school term time.

Addressing the meal voucher issue and the broader subject of childhood poverty, Rashford wrote: “I don’t claim to have the education of an MP in Parliament, but I do have a social education."

“I am clued up on the difference a U-turn decision would make on the 1.3 million vulnerable children across the UK who are registered for free school meals because ten years ago I was one of them.”

Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson has said the prime minister will respond to Mr Rashford’s letter “as soon as he can”, adding how the "intention remains to get all students back by September".

The spokesperson also said Mr Johnson had not seen a "tone deaf" comment made by a minister on Tuesday morning, due to being in meetings.

Following a tweet in which Rashford called for the public to consider parents who've had "their water turned off during lockdown", Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey responded "water cannot be disconnected though".

Social media users, including several MPs, denounced the comment.

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner chipped in, revealing how her family couldn't "afford hot water when I was growing up".

She added: "I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced poverty and being unable to pay the bills but as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions I would have expected better from you.”

Another bizarre comment was made by Grant Shapps, who in an interview with ITV News suggested providing cancer treatment was as important as providing a child a meal - though he quickly said his comment had been misinterpreted.

Political Correspondent Paul Brand asked: "Can you tell me something that's more important than making sure a child has a meal?"

To which the transport secretary responded: "Well, providing a cancer operation, there are many, many things which are incredibly important but I don't think it's an either/or.

"I think parents should be able to of course feed their children, which is why we have a furlough scheme to ensure people are still in work."

He added: "Let's just be clear, you asked me what's as important or more important i said there are other things that are incredibly important like cancer operations, but I then, quickly, went on to say there is no play-off between one or the other.

"Both of these things are important but it is the case that we are putting money into exactly these things, which is absolutely right."